Monday, 15 November 2010

South London Gallery

Another post about a place I visited a while ago. It's a tactic I like, visit somewhere and then mull it over for a while. Let the experience sink in, and write about what I still remember a month or two or even a year or two later.

The South London Gallery has occupied a purpose built Victorian building since 1891. The main gallery space is very fine - a tall and long roof lit rectangle, it is a well proportioned and reassuring classic gallery space. This summer 6a architects completed works enabling the gallery to expand and evolve. They refurbished an adjacent and previously derelict Georgian terrace house to contain a cafe, exhibition spaces and an apartment for an artist in residence. And they built two extensions. One directly adjoining the refurbished house and the existing gallery - a tall room that works on both a domestic scale and a gallery space scale. The second extension is beyond a garden or courtyard depending on which way you approach. It is a simple squarish space, roof lit like the main gallery. Wide pivoting wall panels allow the space to open onto the courtyard.

The two extensions are clad in fibre cement panels. And this ubiquitous material has been used really cleverly. It has been cut into panels of about 40x60cm and these have been fixed like big shingles - overlapping one another. There are two colours, a brown and a grey in very similar dark tone, equally but slightly irregularly interspersed. I think this works brilliantly. Partly down to the scale - they are bigger than classic shingles, but smaller than standard fibre cement panels. Cutting this materiel down to a smaller size would be fiddly and fussy, making shingles bigger than these and you might start to dilute the texture that the overlapping generates. The overall effect is of the 'strangely familiar' sort - shingles, but different, fibre cement panels, but used differently... And the subtle play of colour between the grey brown and the brown grey is great. Used alone these sober colours might seem dull, but used together they resonate against one another, creating a rich and warm facade.

I read somewhere that the architects had said the project was entirely made using the kind of basic everyday materiels that one could buy in B&Q. If this is true to the last detail I can't be sure, but it is an unpretentious attitude I like. In the description of the project on their website they mention that the existing main gallery space is 'impressive in scale but invisible from the street' and the sense of surprise one has upon entering it. I think what they have achieved in their extension carries some of the same quality. On first appearances it is a very muted and low key project, but the clever use of volume, light, materiality and detail gradually reveals itself. I hope to go back soon, I'm sure I didn't notice everything the first time round. (More photos will be posted later).

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